I’m scrolling through Instagram when I find a video of a pigeon bobbing to a guitar player on the street, tourists clapping along. The caption lauds the bird’s dancing skills. Opening the comments, I find a smattering of people among the “Cute!” and “aww [various emojis]” arguing that the pigeon is not actually feeling the music’s rhythm, but has an injured leg and is trying to get to the street. There’s even the occasional animal rights tangent.
Many media ambiguities are like this — benign. A small video is misinterpreted for comedic convenience. Yet, such trivial instances betray a larger, more sinister progression of media towards an alarming misinformation epidemic.
Misinformation is far from a new concept. From America’s Red Scare anti-communist propaganda during the 1900s to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, we all know the consequences of spreading misinformation on significant scales. Innocent people were unfairly convicted in the former case, and many were threatened, harassed, and even physically attacked by alt-right actors in the latter.
The concept of “post-truth” was recently introduced to me: an era where objective fact becomes less influential in shaping public opinion than emotion and biases. Considering our psychological instinct to believe whatever is presented to us and the prevalence of scroll-happy social media, the post-truth era starts to seem like less of a theory and more of a likely future. Misinformation is becoming an increasingly critical yet understated emergency. Now, more than ever, we need to be careful in how we consume information.
Humans err towards truth. This makes sense — if we were inherent skeptics, relationships could not be established, group work would be impossible, and society would stagnate in isolationism and paranoia. Our propensity for belief, however, can harm us in the modern media climate. Society is vastly unequipped to recognize fake news — according to “CNN,” as many as three out of four Americans overestimate their ability to identify false headlines. This alarming lack of media literacy is only exacerbated by many other factors contributing to the rise in misinformation.
More than one billion TikTok videos are collectively watched every day, according to “Social Media Perth.” We judge if we want to view these videos by the first several frames before swiping away. Content creators pander to appearances instead of accuracy. Polarization and ideological unity are viciously self-perpetuating — ten comments lead to hundreds. It becomes dangerously easy for misinformation to slip through and for narratives to spiral out of control.
Last year, I saw an Instagram post with a bold-faced headline talking about a woman who was criminally prosecuted for performing a late abortion. I instinctively sympathized with her, and the initial burst of angry comments condemning the country’s government evidently did too. As I scrolled further, however, comments of a different perspective started appearing. They talked about how the woman had not actually performed an abortion, but brutally killed her baby soon after they were born. The post had grossly distorted the real story. Intrigued, I researched further, and found confirming evidence of this. While I personally and strongly believe in the fundamental right to an abortion, we should never condone journalistic fabrication to further any sort of opinionated narrative.
People also love to avoid cognitive dissonance. We seek information, consciously and unconsciously, that corroborate our beliefs, and often ignore those that do not. Social evidence in the form of popularity can become as influential as objective fact, especially on the Internet. Echo chambers form within radicalizing Internet communities due to algorithms, and any opposition is flamed without regard for possible legitimacy. In a post-truth era, these phenomena painfully exacerbate the spread of misinformation.
I admit I have fallen into this trap of letting my political views skew my perspective, specifically in the case of the Xinjiang Uyghur re-education camps. At first, I was indignant at the U.S. government for spreading what I construed to be fake news to justify a more aggressive approach against China. I eagerly watched YouTubers like Daniel Dumbrill that eloquently debunked ‘genocide’ allegations. Later, however, I realized that this fanaticism was equally as delusional as believing wholeheartedly in the Xinjiang story. Both sides had at least some merit; nothing was black and white, but my closed mindset was. While it’s far from my place to make any claims about the truth of the camps, from a purely journalistic perspective, many of the ‘genocide’ articles did use heavily emotional language, a pattern of phrases akin to “impossible to verify,” and sources whose credibility was impacted by conflicts of interest. I say this as a counterweight to the lopsided consensus towards believing these allegations. The media covering the Xinjiang story exemplify declining journalistic standards symptomatic of post-truth. To say the least, these provocative narratives warrant closer study before readily supporting or opposing them.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, along with the divisive political climate in the U.S. today, I believe we are hurtling towards a post-truth era, and not doing enough to combat this rise in misinformation. We need to approach inflammatory stories much more critically. We must take a step back for introspection in the face of extreme anger, frustration, or indignation. To do so, search for all sides of the narrative; not just the ones you agree with. Find the hot takes and the dissenting opinions, whether that be in Instagram comment sections, Reddit forums, or the dinner table. There’s often gold there — and character development.
Though we may never know for sure if a pigeon is limping or dancing, at the very least, we should discuss thoughtfully before mindlessly sharing and liking. The pigeon may get offended. Just kidding — but please, please do this for the topics that matter. Misinformation not only misinforms; with issues more weighty than pigeon injuries at stake, it can jeopardize, and even end lives.
Editor’s Note: Ava Chen ’24 is an Associate Arts Editor for The Phillipian.